- by Zach Johnson Rating: Release Date: Label:
Friday the 13th is supposed to be a spooky day, but you wouldn’t have known that if you happened to be at Douglas Park for the inaugural day of Riot Fest last week.
Not only was the lineup that day a tad on the cute and cuddly side (was pretty loaded with pop-punk bands…and The Flaming Lips), but the weather also turned out to be fairly pristine to boot, with mostly sunny skies and near 80-degree (26C) temperatures. In fact, the only mildly menacing ingredient in the air that day was probably the wind, as the city of Chicago was definitely living up to its nickname (which is a bit of a misnomer, but I digress) that afternoon.
Just ask Hot Snakes, who took to the gigantic Roots stage (one of the two largest stages at the festival) shortly after 3:00 to markedly breezy conditions. The wind was so gusty it actually knocked loose a long dangling cord that was hanging from the top of the stage, much to the chagrin of guitarist John Reis, who managed to do a nice job of maneuvering around the potential safety hazard as it flailed around wildly in the wind kind of like, well, a hot snake maybe (had to)? The rogue cord (which was eventually commandeered by a stagehand) initially proved to be livelier than the crowd itself, which seemingly took forever wake-up despite all the high-quality Stooges-esque riffing blasting from the stage courtesy of Hot Snakes. At one-point Reis (with a good sense of humor) literally said “do something” in an attempt to compel the notably lackadaisical crowd to get moving, which inevitably happened thanks largely to raucous performances of songs like “Automatic Midnight”, “Audit in Progress”, and “This Mystic Decade”. For a mid-afternoon set, you would have been hard-pressed to find a better performance than Hot Snakes, who delivered a quality set, stray cord and all.
After taking in some professional wrestling (yes, they literally had a wrestling ring with masked wrestlers...take that Lolla!) I migrated to the Radicals stage in modest anticipation of Pennywise's set. It was there I caught the last few songs of Cock Sparrer’s set, a band I was not terribly familiar with, but since they had a somewhat amusing name, figured they might be worth a listen. In a nutshell, they weren’t really, but they did deliver a lot of emphatic, workmanlike, pub-punk chant-along songs that seemed to go over well with the decent-sized crowd that took in their set. One thing’s for certain though. If I ever become a raging-alcoholic British football fan (which is beyond incredulous for a variety of reasons), you can bet your ass I’ll be right there singing along to Cock Sparrer’s blue-collar pub anthems someday too.
But until that imaginary day comes, if I’m going to get caught singing along to mildly douchey punk anthems, odds are it will be during a Pennywise set. Granted this reviewer has never been particularly keen on singing along to most anything, much less jovial punk songs, but I suppose I could always make an exception for “Bro Hymn”. That tune (which was accompanied by an equally jovial circle-pit) actually came last in their set, but not before they delivered spirited renditions of PW classics like “Fuck Authority” and “Fight till You Die”. They also peppered in a couple of covers for good measure, including “Minor Threat” and an abbreviated version of Sublime’s “Same In the End”. Needless to say, Pennywise’s set was a lot of fun, and being this is the 2nd time I’ve seen them live in as many years, they’ve slowly started to turn this reviewer into a modest fan. Better late than never as they say!
After Pennywise, it was time to navigate a minor scheduling conflict between pop-punk legends The Decedents and everyone’s favorite indie-band turned psych-rock superstars The Flaming Lips. Although I would consider myself to be a much bigger fan of the latter band as opposed to the former, The Flaming Lips were performing their 2002 album Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots in its entirety, an album that I always found to be a bit overrated/underwhelming, at least relative to what that came directly before it (The Soft Bulletin). If they were performing The Soft Bulletin (which I saw performed live several years ago), or even the highly underrated Transmissions for the Satellite Heart (a personal favorite), it would be no contest, but given my general lack of enthusiasm for Yoshimi, I decided to drop by The Decedents set first instead. This proved to be a somewhat regrettable decision on my part, but not because The Decedents didn’t do their thing and do it well (live versions of “Hope” and “Everything Sux” were on point), but I apparently forgot a crucial aspect that is unique to seeing The Flaming Lips live: the visual aspect.
Simply put, you would be very hard-pressed to find a currently active band with a more visually stunning stage show than that of The Flaming Lips. The reality of this dawned on me as I rounded the corner on my way to catch the back-half of their set and saw a spectacular giant inflatable robot (which was pink of course) floating around with Wayne & company on the Roots Stage. Unfortunately for me, being that I approached roughly midway through their set, the crowd was much too dense for me to get anywhere remotely close to the stage, but from afar, the aforementioned mega-balloon robot must have been at least 50 feet (15 meters) tall. Behind it was The Flaming Lips’ always brilliant light show, and of course, Wayne ventured into the crowd in his patented bubble balloon (which is indisputably the greatest crowd-surfing invention of all-time), all the while sporting his childlike burnout grin that is authentically joyful to witness. That’s kind of the essence of all Flaming Lips shows really: joy (and wonderment). And despite this reviewer soaking it all in from what felt like the Kedzie Pink Line Station (local reference…I was far away), they still managed to project that awe-inspiring feeling to all those in their aural and visual range. Gotta love the Lips. Fantastic live band.
Rounding out the evening was a band I was less than enthusiastic to see (putting it nicely), but as evidenced by the epic sea of humanity covering an enormous swath of field at the Riot Stage, apparently, I was in the minority. The band in question was Blink 182, and if it were not for my lovely and graceful wife, who is an unabashed fan of the band from back in their late 90s heyday, I would have no doubt made my way to the Rise Stage to checkout Jawbreaker. But, being as it was, I did my best not to be an insufferable asshole and just grin and bear my way through Blink’s set.
But it was hard. Really really hard.
As you may have gathered, I am not a Blink 182 fan, but objectively speaking, I’m pretty sure they’re good at what they do: make cute and catchy pop-punk for generally happy-go-lucky suburban kids. During their set (they were performing their breakout album Enema of the State), I tried to do a little self-reflection. Why did I find their boyish charm and corny brand of pop-punk so irritating to the point of it feeling offensive? What the F is my problem anyway? Did I just get stung by a mosquito? Why am I such an asshole? Is the dull pain in my knees/feet a preliminary sign of rheumatoid arthritis or have I just not sat down at all for approximately the past 5 hours? Or both? Why can’t I just stand back and try to enjoy this?
Unfortunately, such deep existential ponderings were often interrupted by screaming Blink fans standing right behind me, or by overhearing conversations like “Did you know Travis had a blood clot last year?” or debates on whether “Matt or Mark are funnier”, etc. These conversations were almost as excruciating as hearing 10,000+ people sing “All the Small Things” together in gleeful unison, so I tried to go deeper within my psyche, to find my happy place, to visualize a more contented future state of being.
So, naturally, I thought about where I would be a mere 24 hours later. I closed my eyes and recited these feel-good lyrics in anticipation of Saturday night’s closer:
“Close your eyes
Look deep in your soul
Step outside yourself
And let your mind go
Frozen eyes stare deep in your mind as you die!”
Ah, that felt better. Leave it to Slayer to cheer me up.
All kidding aside, and in fairness to Blink 182, they did their thing, but their sound was muffled (granted we were a considerable distance from the stage, but still, several other people complained about that). It was what it was, but most importantly, I survived and was very much looking forward to Slayer’s final Chicago show Saturday night.
It would be soon…
Day 1 Tidbits:
Number of people that complimented my (really old and worn-out) Minutemen t-shirt: 0/zip/zilch/nada
Cool t-shirt sightings of bands Riot Fest should consider booking next year: Jawbox, Pissed Jeans, METZ
Number of Friday the 13th-themed t-shirt sightings: 13 (spooky)!